Monday, March 18, 2013

Bellini: Norma — Act I (concert performance: Madrid, 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a VAI (stands for Video Artists International) disc I’d got as a closeout from Daedalus Books: Montserrat Caballé in two performances from the Teatro Real in Madrid, one in 1971 and one in 1979. The 1971 show was a concert performance of Act I of Bellini’s Norma (though Norma is in just two acts and therefore Act I consists of more than half the opera!) and the 1979 one a recital of Caballé and pianist Miguel Zanetti in songs and opera excerpts by Handel, Vivaldi (who usually isn’t thought of today as a vocal composer, though he wrote quite a few operas and some of them have been revived lately — it was during the era that composers churned out opera after opera by recycling their own music, either from earlier operas or instrumental pieces, which was why, when one Vivaldi opera had its Los Angeles premiere, the L. A. Times critic warned audiences that two of the arias would be joltingly familiar because they were based on themes Vivaldi also used in The Four Seasons) and Granados. Charles noted that in 1971 dictator Francisco Franco was still the absolute ruler of Spain, and therefore suggested that Norma was a “safer” project for the Teatro Real in Madrid to perform than, say, Tosca. Also, Spanish TV was still in black-and-white in 1971, and between the rather murky lighting of the Teatro Real, the black dress Caballé was wearing as Norma and the black suits of the three male participants — bland tenor Robierto Merolla as Pollione, up-and-coming bass James Morris as Oroveso and an unidentified singer as Pollione’s servant and sidekick, Flavio — the singers tended to get lost among the orchestra members and the overall murk. The one who didn’t was the Adalgisa, Margreta Elkins (that odd spelling of her first name is correct), who was wearing a white gown and stood about a head taller than both Caballé and Merolla in their big trio at the end of the act. Norma is an extraordinary opera by the composer I consider by far the best of the three most commonly associated with the bel canto style; compared to Rossini and Donizetti, Bellini seems to have been the most dramatically and musically sophisticated — even Wagner admitted that he learned from Bellini (most notably ideas on how to use the brass instruments) and he carefully left Bellini out of his attacks on Italian composers, just as he carefully left Jacques Fromental Hálevy, who wrote La Juive (an attack on anti-Semitism and an opera Wagner loved despite his own anti-Semitic prejudices), out of his attacks on Jewish composers.

Its plot, relatively simple, derives from a French poetic drama by the now otherwise forgotten Alexandre Soumet, which in turn derives from the Medea myth: Norma is the high priestess of the moon in a Druidic religious cult during the times that the Romans were trying to conquer the British isles. However, despite her position of power with the Romans’ adversaries and her vow of chastity, she’s not only fallen in love with the Roman proconsul Pollione, she’s born him two children — even though the job includes having to make at least one big public appearance every month when the moon is in its crescent phase, and one would think people would notice if a pregnant woman were doing this. (Then again, maybe one of the justifications for casting zaftig sopranos like Caballé or Joan Sutherland in this role was to make it believable that Norma was a woman so large you wouldn’t notice if she were pregnant.) But Pollione has not only decided to dump Norma, he’s set his sights on her assistant priestess, Adalgisa, and wants her to break her vows and run away with him to Rome. The act we saw in this production starts with Norma’s father Oroveso assembling the Druids and demanding that they rebel against the Romans. Then we get Pollione’s aria about a dream he had in which he and Adalgisa were standing together on the steps of the Temple of Venus back in Rome, and his concern that Norma will somehow figure out what’s going on and queer the deal. At that point Norma enters and leads the Druids in the ritual prayer to the moon, “Casta diva” — one of Bellini’s (or anyone else’s) most ravishingly beautiful arias — which is also her plea to the Druids to keep the peace and not rebel. When the service is done (though Norma is still standing there in front of everybody) she sings a flashy cabaletta, “Ah! Bello a me ritorna,” in which she says she hopes Pollione will soon return to her. (Remember that this is intended to be an aside because the relationship between Norma and Pollione is supposed to be a big secret.) Then Adalgisa comes in to see Norma privately, and the two sing a lovely duet in which Norma says that she won’t hold Adalgisa to her vows but will set her free to join her beloved. Of course, Norma doesn’t yet know that her boyfriend and Adalgisa’s are one and the same — and when Adalgisa lets her in on the secret of just who the guy she has the hots for is, Norma is furious. Pollione enters and the three of them sing an angry, seething trio that ends Act I.

In Act II (not included here) Norma decides to avenge herself against Pollione by murdering the two children they had together, and in Soumet’s play she actually does so — but Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani, had a better idea; Norma prepares to kill her kids but can’t go through with the deed. Instead she appears at the next Druid version of a general assembly, announces that she’s dropping her opposition to the Druids who want to rebel against the Romans, condemns both Pollione and Adalgisa, then has a turn of heart, announces that she is the traitor who betrayed her people for the love of the Roman general, and commits suicide by hurling herself off a convenient cliff, leaving the kids in the hands of her father Oroveso (as Anna Russell might have said, “Ya remember Oroveso?”) to raise. The Act I presented here is actually pretty dull; Caballé is in good form vocally and Elkins (a second-tier mezzo from La Scala’s 1950’s glory days who had previously sung with Maria Callas) is also good (their duet is radiant), but the guys aren’t all that interesting and conductor Enrique Garcia Asensio rather plods through the score, missing almost all the obvious opportunities for drama and intensity. Maybe it was because he was conducting it in concert — and the singers weren’t helping maintain the mood much by milking the audience applause after every aria and ensemble for all it was worth — but this Act I of Norma was surprisingly dull, and for that I tend to blame Garcia Asensio more than the singers or Bellini. (It was also amusing that the performance was filmed in Madrid but all the post-production work was done at studios in Barcelona.)

The recital presented on the rest of the disc was marked as a bonus item, but it was consistently more interesting than Norma, partly because Caballé seemed to have matured as an artist in the intervening eight years (it also helped that in between 1971 and 1979, Franco had fallen and, probably purely coincidentally, Spanish TV had adopted color) and partly because her accompanist, pianist Miguel Zanetti, seemed like a much more interesting musician than Garcia Asensio, coloring and shaping the music in ways the conductor had been unwilling or unable to do with his orchestra (“RTVE,” the initials of the network that had broadcast the show) in Norma. The repertoire wasn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill vocal recital program, either; it began with three selections by Handel — two from his Italian operas (the little-known “An, no son io che parlo” from Ezio and the well-known “Care Selve” from Atalanta — misspelled “Atlanta” on the on-screen credit!) and one, “O, had I Jubal’s lyre,” from the oratorio Joshua — which I found amusing because Caballé’s English diction, though no great shakes (and in an aria featuring lots of vocal ornamentation that tends to make the text indecipherable in any language), was at least better than Joan Sutherland’s even though Sutherland, unlike Caballé, came from an English-speaking country. Then she did five selections by Vivaldi, one a separate song (“Vieni, vieni, o mio diletto”) and the others excerpts from his operas, and though the historically-informed performance fascists would probably pick her to pieces, Caballé’s singing here was spirited and lively.

After a bit of Cherubini’s opera Demofonte (ironically Cherubini’s only opera even tangentially in the standard repertory, Medée, was written by an Italian composer living in France and was therefore in French, though virtually all modern performances are in an Italian-language adaptation by Franz Lachner, a German, who replaced the original’s spoken dialogue with sung recitatives) Caballé did three songs by Granados, “Cançi d’amor,” “L’oeil profeta” and “Elegia eterna.” I joked that we were finally hearing Caballé sing in her native language, Spanish — and Charles pointed out to me that the “ç” with a tail isn’t used in standard Spanish and therefore that song was either in Portuguese or a regional dialect of Spanish like Catalán or Galician. (I remember encountering a video in Catalán about a community doing their own water project — and the title spelled the word “agua” with an “i,” “aigua.”) Caballé seemed more at home in the music of Granados than she had in the Baroque arias of Handel and Vivaldi or the classical-era Cherubini selection, and she did her most spirited singing of the night in her two encores: “Carceleras” from Roberto Chapí’s Las Hijas del Zebedeo and “Me llaman la primorosa” from a version of The Barber of Seville by Gerónimo Giménez and Manuel Nieto. It’s interesting that there’s a zarzuela version of this story to set alongside the full-length operas by Paisiello and Rossini, and even more interesting that in these lighter zarzuela arias both Caballé and Zanetti seemed to be letting their hair down and really having fun with the music. Despite VAI’s decision to give us English subtitles only for Norma and not for the songs, this was an interesting disc and the song recital was especially commendable.